The arts and the sciences: How collaboration could lead to a winner for the Longitude Prize

A shorter version of this blog was originally posted on the Longitude Prize Blog on the 23rd January 2015.

Artwork by C-Lab. Photo: Sas Schilten
Artwork by C-Lab. Photo: Sas Schilten

Since the Enlightenment there has been increasing specialisation in the respective roles of scientists and artists, which has fostered an image of the sciences and the arts as separated or even as diametrically opposed pursuits. At the same time, there has been a recent sociological, historical and artistic re-analysis that has revealed a shared underlying impetus in both fields to augment human knowledge and to extend our experience of the world. This can be conceptualised at its most simple level in the common desire within both fields to take pleasure from understanding something new and communicating this to others. And in many cases interdisciplinary collaborations have been a driving force behind the arts radically influencing the outcomes of science for the better.

Two cultures

 Many people still conceptualised ‘science’ as purely empirical, embracing the objective in the quest for the production of truths, while ‘arts’ are considered an expression of the ‘metaphysical’, focusing on personal reflection on the human experience. Scientist and novelist C.P. Snow brought this dichotomy to public attention in his 1959 lecture at Cambridge University, entitled ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’. The lecture was a landmark in the history of the relationship, and sparked a debate that continues in contemporary popular discourse. Snow asserted that two distinct cultures existed within the educated elite: that of scientists and that of literary and artistic intellectuals, the two parties experiencing “mutual incomprehension”. He described the relationship as an epistemological dichotomy, with different values placed on the existential moment and the human condition. He also generalised to establish that non-scientists saw scientists as “shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition” and scientists saw intellectuals as “totally lacking in foresight…in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment”.

Snow’s argument reflected contemporary cultural ideas, and though it may appear out-dated, it is interesting to consider whether a cultural divide between ‘sciences’ and ‘arts’ persists. In her book ‘Art and Science’ Ede argues that science is still characterised by a reductionist philosophy, while art remains attached to the world of superstition that certain sections of science see as encouraging prejudice and exploitation in society. Ede explores similarity and difference between both fields, as well as considering the ambiguities of language and epistemology. Ede’s work alludes to the same cultural dichotomy between the existential and metaphysical arts and the empirical and objective sciences.

From art and science to ‘sciart’

 A major theme within the ‘sciart’ movement has been to bridge this perceived divide between the ‘two cultures’ of science and art. However the field of ‘sciart’ is not new; the concept preceded the ‘two cultures’ lecture. The term ‘sciart’ was coined by Bern Porter in his ‘Sciart Manifesto’ in 1950. Notably, from the mid 1990’s the increasing popularity of sciart was reflected in growing encouragement for collaborations between scientists and artists through provision of funding from major institutions, including the Wellcome Trust, and the Sciart consortium.

This increase in interdisciplinary practice between science and art leads us to question if the separation between the epistemological traditions of the arts and sciences is still prevalent today. Some texts describe art and science coming together under such ‘metaphysical’ pretenses as to extend our experience of the world or to allow deeper moral discussion. Such themes are superficialy interesting, however they fail to evoke questions about the practical nature of science and art collaboration. The practices of art and science uphold different conventions. Often the publicly shared understanding of the ‘role’ of the artist and scientist are skewed. In some cases the way in which collaboration occurred has been shaped by the conventions of science, for example the need to gain funding through science institution, and in others the conventions associated with the ‘free expression’ of the arts have influenced science.

The boundaries between science and art becoming increasingly blurred. The artworks from C-lab use synthetic biology as their medium. From genetically engineering bacteria to glow when they feel stressed, to creating bacteria capable of degrading material dye, C-Lab’s creations use the laboratory as their canvas. In this sense artists are adhering to the conventions of science, through the use of lab techniques in order to produce artistic creations.

For innovators seeking to produce novel products for science, it is very interesting to consider how the ‘arts’ can disrupt or bring new insight to conventional science innovation processes. A good example of this happened through sciences at the European European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge collaborating with a science design company called Science Practice. Designers at Science Practice have developed new ways for scientists to visualise protein sequence bundles. Each individual sequences or groups of protein sequences can be highlighted using different colours and easily compared on the same visualisation. The technique developed keeps individual sequences as intact, distinct lines, rather than separating and summarising the individual building blocks, they reveal patterns in sequential blocks that would be obscured by statistical methods. This provides a novel way of collecting and analysing data. The graphic designers were able to assist scientists in ‘seeing’ their data in a new light.

New approaches, new perspectives.

Sometimes the influence of art on science can be more subtle, but just as important; new perspectives can be bought about through interdisciplinary collaboration. A malarial scientist obsessed with merozoites worked with a photographic artist through funding from the Wellcome Trust. Together they went to the clinics in East Africa that provided the blood samples for malarial research. The scientist became the photographer’s assistant, holding tripods not syringes, and seeing the community for the first time through eyes free to look more broadly at the issue of malaria. This allowed him to change the way he worked for the better. This collaborative influence is more difficult to quantify, however it is clear to see that art and science interactions can have a variety of effects from changing personal perspectives, to influencing how data is perceived.

For a successful application to the Longitude Prize, it is important that teams embrace interdisciplinarity and realise the potential that science and art collaborations have to strengthen ideas. Truly novel innovation often happens in unexpected ways. The winner of the longitude prize will have a novel diagnostic that has the potential to be game changing in the health care and surveillance sector – an artistic perspective has the potential to make a difference.

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